The Subject as Object: ‘Photography and the Human Body’ – Michelle Henning

18th September 2013

This chapter ranges across a great many aspects of how the human body has been objectified over the period of western artistic history, the range was quite surprising to me and I had to read the chapter twice to really grasp the breadth and obtain a reasonable understanding.

Although it wasn’t the first aspect of body objectification to be mentioned, the text goes as far back as medieval times to establish a point in time when humans were so tightly controlled by the hierarchical social structure that it was impossible under those conditions to create anything that led to objectification of the body.  Things changed after the black death decimated the European population and the advent of the traditional nude painting developed.

My understanding of the use of photography as objectification for social control purposes came about through the rise of eugenics, the political following and implementation and the use photographs had in that process.  Racial and class identifiers were said to show the weaknesses of the members of those societies, which led to the calling for the careful outbreeding of their undesirable traits.  The extremes of this pseudo-science were incorporated in the Nazi philosophy or Arianism and their decimation of whole ethnic groups of peoples from the countries they invaded during WWII.  More modern variants of eugenics are still believed in by various despotic governments and have led to ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the former Yugoslavia, the horrors of Rwanda and the continual repression of the Kurds to name just 3 instances.  The images made to promote the beliefs of the perpetrators are meant to depict the physical traits that the persecuted show and enable their weeding out much more easily.  As such it means that the photographers must believe in the propaganda themselves to continually help make promotions for the regime in question.

Francis Galton, the man who invented the study of eugenics also developed the use of fingerprinting in the identification of criminals, amongst his many other accomplishments, and contemporaneously with Alphonse Bertillon who developed a systemised method of photographic facial identification, ‘mug shots’, and crime scene recording, made the use of photography a key element of criminology and the detection of criminals.  This objectification of the body, particularly the face and fingers, has subsequently led to facial recognition systems and biometric data usage by modern police agencies in their fight against crime and terrorism.

Today, imaging of the body for medical purposes has developed to such a degree that not only are the outward manifestations of injuries, illness and disease photographed, along with surgical procedures in the theatre, but CAT and MRI scanning produce internal images of the body, which along with the earlier methods of cataloguing by photography, make the human body a veritable teaching aid in itself and has become a medical object.

The objectification of the female body has been a constant throughout the rest of history in the west, unsurprisingly as men have been in control of most societies and their politics during this period, and the female form is the most likely depiction to arouse desire in men. Having said that, homoeroticism is very much more common today than in the past, due to its previous criminalisation in nearly all societies until very recently. In the past coded images were available for the minority who followed this form of titillation, although lesbian imaging has never been particularly common, women apparently preferring textual erotica. Now, homosexual and lesbian imaging is becoming more available and has joined the mainstream of artistic photography, although depending upon how avant-garde the images are will depend the amount of homophobic rhetoric they engender.  Part of this work also covers pornography and attempts have been made to classify the users of this material into societal strata such that base pornography of a heterosexual nature has been attributed to the working, or lower, classes and the middle and upper classes as having little or no interest.  This it seems was (is) a prevalent concept and it has been theorised that ‘ladies’ shouldn’t, and don’t want to be, exposed to this sort of material.  I’m not sure that a theory such as his holds water as deviancy, if that’s what it is, cannot be said to be more prevalent in one strata of society than another and therefore there must be adherents to pornography, and other sexual deviancy, in middle and upper classes as well as lower and working class.  The difference is that lower and working classes could be said to be less educated, literate and aware and maybe found out to have such material more often than better educated, more literate and aware middle and upper classes.  Although having said all that there is probably more to the distribution pattern than the simplistic scenario I’ve presented.

The objectification of the female form is the most common form of objectification of the human body and is used in all walks of modern life, particularly in film and advertising, where no effort is spared to include some reference to female half-nudity or full body aesthetics to attract mostly male interest.  This subject is discussed in much more depth further into the course reader and will be the subject of a further post within this blog at the appropriate time.

2 Responses to The Subject as Object: ‘Photography and the Human Body’ – Michelle Henning

  1. Catherine says:

    It must be a very long chapter to cover all those years! It got me thinking about social control and how some religions believe women must be covered up as much as possible.

    • Eddy Lerp says:

      It is quite a long chapter and like you I was immediately conscious of of the social control connections. The part that makes you think the most though is the section on eugenics and how it was accepted by so many governments around the world as the truth without having to prove its accuracy. It led to the USA stopping immigration in the 1920’s and I can still see how it influences our government today and certainly the US government, which is kinda scary.

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